Sen. Mark KirkMark Steven KirkLiberal veterans group urges Biden to name Duckworth VP On the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump Biden campaign releases video to explain 'what really happened in Ukraine' MORE (R-Ill.) says Rep. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthWhitmer met with Biden days before VP announcement: report Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Senate Democrats push to include free phone calls for incarcerated people in next relief package MORE (D-Ill.) “has a bright future ahead of her” — as long as she doesn’t get in his way in 2016. 

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The Illinois Republican is running “come hell or high water” in Democratic-leaning Illinois as perhaps the most vulnerable GOP incumbent in next cycle. There are several Democrats who could line up to challenge the freshman senator, but in an interview Thursday with The Hill, he suggested that Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran who had her first child this week, would be better served to wait for Sen. Dick Durbin's (D-Ill.) term to end in 2020. 

“She has a very bright future ahead of her. After only one term … you know, when you run for the Senate, you have to give up your congressional seat. If she gives up her congressional seat and loses against me, that's a very sad ending to a bright career,” Kirk said about the congresswoman and potential rival.

“To fight and lose a Senate race against Kirk is a terrible start to a career,” the Illinois Republican said in a sit-down interview in his Senate office.

Democrats have already painted a target on Kirk’s back. He’s the only Republican from a heavily Democratic state facing reelection in two years and defeated a flawed candidate in the 2010 GOP wave with a 48 percent plurality of the vote. Though Democrats have a number of other purple-state opportunities, their path back to a Senate majority likely runs through Illinois. 

To do that, they’ll need to land a strong recruit. Kirk is relatively popular in the blue-leaning state, and Illinois Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner’s (R) win earlier this month shows that Kirk’s victory was no fluke, though Democrats tend to do much better in presidential years in the state. 

“We now have updated information from the most recent election that a Republican can and will win in Illinois, and now I have a much easier argument to make about our upcoming reelection. If you say it's impossible for a Republican to win Illinois, you're ignoring the Kirk win and the Rauner win,” the senator said. 

That doesn’t mean things will be easy for Kirk. Democrats are already hard at work recruiting an opponent, and Duckworth’s name is topping most lists. Her office declined to respond to Kirk's comments, saying the congresswoman is focused on her newborn girl, but those close to her tell The Hill she's seriously considering a bid for the Senate and would likely make a decision early next year.

Illinois political observers say the potential race would be a barn-burner.

“Neither side would be a pushover,” said Roosevelt University professor Paul Green, a former Chicago alderman. “It would be one tough race and one of the premier races in the country.”

Duckworth has come a long way in her political abilities since she lost her first race in 2006 to Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.). Her background as an Iraq War veteran helps answer one of Kirk’s strongest selling points — his military background. Both also face some physical disabilities: Kirk is still recovering from a massive stroke he suffered in 2011, while Duckworth was badly wounded when her helicopter was attacked in Iraq, losing both of her legs.

“As a female candidate, as a veteran with a real story in terms of her service, that's all positive. She's certainly better as a campaigner than she was the first go-around. She's not a natural superstar in terms of being out there on the hustings. But I think she's perfectly effective and has certainly improved,” said University of Illinois-Springfield professor emeritus Kent Redfield.

Kirk still uses a walker and sometimes a wheelchair to get around, and his speech remains a bit slurred. But he says he’s ready for battle. 

“I would not say it's back to where it was. I still have mobility issues; I still can't run or jog. That's one of my PT goals, to be able to jog,” he said before saying his doctors had said “full mental recovery” was the goal, and he felt he was there. 

The freshman is already laying out his fiscally center-right, socially moderate approach to governing. Kirk supports abortion rights and was the second Republican senator to come out in favor of legalizing gay marriage, as well as one of the only House Republicans to vote for cap and trade legislation to regulate carbon emissions. He’s long touted his work on local environmental concerns.

“As I look forward to election, I will put my record before the state, especially my advocacy for no sewage dumping in Lake Michigan. Everybody has put that in their campaigns. I'm very proud of that, you hear that a lot now in Illinois campaigns,” he said before touting his work on trade issues with China.

Kirk was quick to criticize both President Obama and his own party in the wide-ranging interview. He knocked Obama’s recent immigration moves, saying  it was “incredibly condescending to hook all the rights and privileges of millions of would-be Americans to an executive order which could be changed at any time by any president” but blamed the stalling of immigration reform on House Republicans.

He also criticized the administration’s approach to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, calling the bombing campaign against them “little more than an air show,” before knocking some of his fellow Republicans.

“We definitely have our isolationist wing, which I completely disagree with,” he said, pointing to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), before promising to back a GOP candidate in the presidential primary that he thought would do well in Illinois. He criticized Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) bombastic style as well.

“Some of the candidates that are out there, if they ran for president in Illinois, they would really hurt the Illinois GOP. I lean toward the ones who would do well for us. … I think Ted would get pretty much obliterated in Illinois. I think Rand would not do well in Illinois,” he said, refusing to say whether he’d endorse them if either became the eventual GOP nominee.

He made it clear that, despite his frustration with the past few years, he was looking forward to his new role in a GOP majority.

“The Senate has become exciting now. Now that Harry has been fired, it will be fun in the Senate now, and I can't wait to work with Majority Leader McConnell, who won't just sit around,” said Kirk, calling his new position as a subcommittee chairman on the Appropriations Committee “the highlight of my life.”

But he warned that how the new GOP majority performed would have ramifications on his own reelection chances.

“My biggest concern coming into the election is to make sure the Republican majority is calm and adult and well-considered and governs well and makes the Senate work … to restore the Senate to its position, not as the world's greatest nursing home,” he said.